The Effects of Mere Exposure on Brand Preferenceba Conceptual Framework

ABSTRACT - Literature relating to the Mere Exposure Effect is presented. The major area of inquiry is the impact of exposure to a brand name and the formation of preference for that brand name. Under this topic two main areas of interest are specifically outlined: 1) What is the strength of mere exposure effect compared to traditional stimuli where additional information about product attributes is presented in addition to brand name and product category? 2) Does mere exposure effect vary across low and high involvement purchase situations? After a review of the literature, research propositions are presented.


Hans Mathias Thjomoe (1995) ,"The Effects of Mere Exposure on Brand Preferenceba Conceptual Framework", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 388-392.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 388-392


Hans Mathias Thjomoe, Norwegian School of Management


Literature relating to the Mere Exposure Effect is presented. The major area of inquiry is the impact of exposure to a brand name and the formation of preference for that brand name. Under this topic two main areas of interest are specifically outlined: 1) What is the strength of mere exposure effect compared to traditional stimuli where additional information about product attributes is presented in addition to brand name and product category? 2) Does mere exposure effect vary across low and high involvement purchase situations? After a review of the literature, research propositions are presented.


If you watch any major sporting event, you will typically see dozens of advertisements around the stadium or on the players. These advertisements typically consist of a simple sign or symbol of a sponsoring brand that you may or may not have heard of before. Why do advertisers spend money putting their brand names in front of the public with no additional information about the product? This question is a key topic of the paper. Previous studies have shown that mere exposure to a stimulus (for example the name and the category of a product shown in an ad), results in an increase in positive affect towards the stimulus. This effect is known as the "mere exposure effect" (Bornstein 1989; Harrison 1977; Janiszewski 1993; Obermiller 1985; Zajonc 1968).

While the literature on mere exposure effect goes back to 1876 (hereafter referred to as exposure effect), the first modern empirical work in the area was published by Zajonc in 1968. Since Zanjonc's pioneering work, more than 130 articles have dealt with some aspect of the exposure-affect relationship, but only four have been related to marketing (Bornstein 1989). Furthermore, Borstein's meta-analysis of the exposure effect literature revealed that three of the four marketing related articles were limited to the impact of repetition on advertising effectiveness. Clearly this has been an under-researched topic in the marketing area, as the potential marketing applications of exposure effect are great in number.

Perhaps because exposure effect has not been extensively studied by marketing scholars, there are several important questions that remain to be answered. First, it is not known how strong this effect is, compared to traditional stimuli that provide information about relevant product attributes in addition to the brand name and product category. Furthermore, it is not known if the mere exposure effect varies across low involvement and high involvement buying situations. This paper addresses these gaps by reviewing the previous exposure effect literature and developing some research propositions.


Most of the research on the exposure effect has concentrated on children's reactions to different stimuli, food preferences, and subliminal behavior modification and learning. Within the marketing area, the scope of research related to the exposure effect has been mainly limited to the impact of message repetition on preference formation (Aaker, Batra and Myers 1992). While this literature has documented that exposure effect does has an impact on affect and preference, no study has, to our knowledge, empirically demonstrated the strength of this effect in comparison to traditional approaches which rely on cognitive processing of information (Bornstein 1989).

The literature suggests two major ways of creating preference: (1) The "exposure" route, and (2) the "determination" route. The first is the mere exposure effect, while the second is the more traditional cognitive information processing method, where affect and preference are created through the processing of product attribute information (Zajonc and Markus 1982). In this paper we will use the terms "exposure effect" and "determination effect" to describe the two preference formation routes.

Figure 1 presents the conceptual model we have developed to graphically explain the two routes. The model is based on the EKB model (Engel, Blackwell and Miniard 1990), Keller's Brand Equity model (Keller 1993), and the work of Zajonc and Markus (1982). While Keller's original model breaks brand awareness into two parts (brand recognition/aided recall and brand recall/unaided recall), we have chosen not to differentiate the two parts. For the purposes of our model, we define brand awareness as the consumer's confirmed exposure to the brand name or symbol and perhaps the product category. This may or may not mean that the consumer has cognitively processed the information, but does mean that some representation of the brand is stored in memory. Brand Awareness, however, does not include knowledge about the product beyond the product category it competes in. For example, the consumer may be aware that Seiko is a brand name for watches, but not know whether it is good, expensive, high-status, or attractive. The Brand Knowledge component of the model incorporates this attribute or symbolic type of information.

The Determination Route to Persuasion

Most marketing communication theory and practice are based on economic man theory (Bagozzi 1991; Kotler 1994; McCarthy and Perreault 1987). The basic idea of this theory is that preference is built on the cognitive analysis of product information, from which a highest utility option is calculated and chosen. This means that for brand preference to develop, the consumer must first be presented with information from which to make a rational decision. This is also the main underlying theory that explains the "determination route" to persuasion.

Figure 1 shows the determination route that consists of information exposure, information processing, brand knowledge formation, and the creation of brand preference. The route suggests that consumers upon receiving information, analyze chosen bits of it, weight it according to pre-determined importance criteria, and then calculate preference based on the brand's overall calculated utility. Brand knowledge, using Keller's definition, consists of two parts: (1) Attribute Based variables, and (2) Non-Attribute Based variables such as symbolism. Recent evidence suggests that non-attribute based variables are increasingly important in determining preference, perhaps because of increasing product similarities on important attributes (Park and Srinivasan 1994).

Overall preference for a brand is determined by comparing it to both alternatives and an ideal product prototype assumed to be present in the minds of consumers. When a brand is closer to this ideal prototype on key decision variables, preference for the brand is created and or strengthened (Johnson and Puto 1987; Lefkoff-Hagius and Mason 1993). When measuring preferences, under the determination route, an overall ranking instrument or a weighted attribute composite using interval scales has been typically employed (Huber, et al. 1993; Zajonc and Markus 1982). Others have used aggregate variables consisting of statements such as "good brand" or "I would like to buy the brand" to measure preference (Costley and Brucks 1992). These measures of preference assume that affect for a brand is generated after cognitive processing of product (attribute) information. This means that the consumer must be knowledgeable about the alternative, before he can judge his liking or disliking of it (Zajonc and Markus 1982). This is the theoretical underpinning of attitude towards an object and attitude towards action models (Fishbein and Ajzen 1980; Sujan 1985).



Evidence suggests, however, that multi-attribute models are poor predictors of choice in many situations (Park and Srinivasan 1994). In an effort to improve the predictive power of these models, the inclusion of non-attribute based components of preference, such as brand image and personality, have been proposed (Keller 1993; Park and Srinivasan 1994). These additions are thought to better capture the affective components of preference, that are important predictors of choice (Allison and Uhl 1964; Park and Srinivasan 1994). Yet, they too assume that the affect is formed prior to choice by cognitive processing of information, something not evidenced by a growing body of literature on actual decision making processing. Studies have shown that the average American consumer is exposed to between 200 and 500 promotional messages per day (Hawkins and Hoch 1992). Because of information overload and bounded rationality, consumers can clearly not fully process all the information they are exposed to. Evidence suggests that they use many heuristics to lessen the information processing burdens they face, which do not follow the traditional economic man decision making criteria (Bettman 1979; March 1978; Simon 1955). Consumers are simplifying the decision problem by limiting information search (McGuire 1976; Troye 1990; Zeithaml 1988), information processing and information utilization (Jacoby, Speller and Kohn 1974). This is particularly true in low involvement situations, which represent most buying decisions (Hawkins and Hoch 1992; Krugman 1965). Furthermore, (Zajonc 1980) concludes that much of the information that is acquired about a decision, is acquired afterwards to justify and not determine the decision.

The Exposure Effect Route to Persuasion

While many marketing communication efforts continue to rely on the economic man assumptions (determination route to persuasion), there is a growing body of literature that indicates preferences are primarily an affective based behavioral phenomenon that may not always be based on cognitive processing (Zajonc and Markus 1982). Going back to the work of Fechner (1876), Maslow (1937), and Zajonc (1968), affect and preference have been created for an object by merely exposing the subject to that object repeatedly. Memory of the exposure does not even need to be present for this effect to demonstrate itself (Janiszewski 1993; Matlin 1971). Matlin (1971), for example, found that old stimuli were preferred to new stimuli, even when subjects expressed no memory of previous exposure to the old stimuli. Other studies have concluded that consumers seek to avoid unpleasant situations, and that one way they do this is by sticking with familiar objects or brands (Aaker et al. 1992). Yet the literature that fully explains the processes behind this exposure effect, and all the conditions necessary for it to work, is still quite limited (Bornstein 1989).



This litterature is the basis for the "exposure route" in Figure 1. Our definition of brand awareness, however, does not require the conscious memory of the previous exposure. Using the exposure route to persuasion, brand building tactics take on a new meaning. Instead of presenting information, symbols or images that are linked to the brand to create a cognitive and/or emotionally (affective) based preference, preference might also be created by simply showing the brand name or symbol repeatedly. Evidence from studies involving low-involvement purchases suggests that information presented in advertisements has little impact on actual preference formation, but instead created more "top of mind" awareness and willingness to try the product (Ray 1973). Actual preference was then developed only after trial, creating an : Attention C> Behavior C> Attitude (preference) sequence in low-involvement situations.

There is some evidence which suggests that consumers engage in more extensive information processing in high-involvement purchases than low-involvement purchases (Greenwald and Leavitt 1984; Ray 1973). To create preference for a particular alternative in a high involvement situation, it may be more important for a firm to provide extensive information to the consumer (Batra and Ray 1983; Bloch, Sherrel and Ridgway 1986; Gardner, Mitchell and Russo 1985; Mitchell 1979; Ray 1979; Aaker, Batra and Myers 1992). It would be expected, therefore, that the exposure effect will have a relatively bigger influence on the formation of preferences for low-involvement purchases than for high involvement purchases.

High-involvement purchases are often assumed to be those that carry greater risk because of the product's high price or visibility, yet there is also evidence that many consumers make decisions on what are often considered high involvement products, based on very little information (Park and Srinivasan 1994). One of the major problems with empirically testing the impact of involvement on decision making behavior is lack of a single widely accepted definition and operationalization of the involvement construct (Batra and Ray 1983; Gardner, Mitchell and Russo 1985; Schiffman and Kanuk 1991; Aaker, Batra and Myers 1992). Definitions of involvement based on product characteristics, become problematic because they assume, but do not actually measure the individual consumer's motivation to seek out and carefully process information prior to a decision. Evidence suggests that most consumers make very few high motivation/involvement purchases that result from the well-informed state assumed by the determination route (Hawkins and Hoch 1992; Kassarjian 1978; Olshavsky and Granbois 1979). Thus the exposure route to preference creation may be prevalent for a large proportion of the purchases, making it an important topic for further study.


The following section reviews the proposed research questions derived from the literature review. The areas of interest encompass two main topics: (1) the impact of information (determination route) versus mere exposure (exposure route) in the formation of preference, and (2) the variance in preference formation caused by high versus low involvement in the buying situation. Because there is so little empirical work covering the areas of interest, propositions rather than directional hypotheses are used. Figure 2 presents the 2 by 2 matrix from which the propositions to be explored are derived. Preference in all the cells is explained as the resulting preference after exposure to a stumulus, versus preference for a stimuli in which there was no pervious exposure.

Proposition 1

For low-involvement products, preference is caused by the mere exposure effect. Further information on product attributes will not cause an additional increase in preference. Therefore, there will be no difference between preference 1 (P1) and preference 2 (P2). This can be expressed in the equation: P2-P1=F1=0, where F1 is an index for the difference between P2 and P1.

Proposition 2

For high-involvement products, the determination route, is expected to create greater preference than the exposure route. Therefore preference 4 (P4) is greater than preference 3 (P3), as expressed in the equation: P4-P3=F2>0.


Answering the research questions requires a 2 by 2 matrix design (shown in Figure 2). Two levels of involvement, high and low, will be created, together with two levels of information exposure. Information Condition 1 (Exposure Route) will consist of mere exposure to a brand name, while Information Condition 2 (Determination Route) will consist of exposure to the brand name plus product attribute information.

The literature suggests that the involvement construct is problematic. The buying situation is not the same as the involvement in a specific product category (Mitchell 1979; Ray 1979), nor are certain products always high-involvement or low-involvement for all consumers. This study will use the definition of (Stone 1984) that defines involvement as a cognitive state consisting of measures of ego involvement, risk perception, and purchase importance. Through pre-tests we will try to determine product categories likely to high-involvement or low-involvement for the majority of subjects participating in the study. Subjects will be college students studying business, reducing problems caused by heterogeneity. Actual determination of each subject's involvement level, however, will be determined by a post-experiment measure to ensure proper cell placement.

Other research design problems are related to the type and duration of exposure. In this article "exposure" is defined as the consumer's observation of a printed message. The stimuli will be a simple design that presents the brand name or brand + product information, but will not be designed to look like an advertisement to control for attitude towards the ad effects. Brand names will be fictional to prevent any previous exposures or experiences from influencing the subjects. Brand names will be pre-tested and rotated to prevent the possibility that one of them is "naturally" preferred by a majority of subjects. Exposure in the exposure conditions will be brief and repeated, but not publicly tied to the experiment from the point of view of the subjects. It is hoped that this will provide the brand name exposure without the conscious processing associated with the determination route.


This article outlines the basic study questions and design. Further development is necessary, and details will be determined, in part, by pre-tests to be carried out in the coming months.


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Hans Mathias Thjomoe, Norwegian School of Management


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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